25 years ago Dubai was a small fishing village located on the edge of a sand desert. Then oil was discovered, but with reserves falling the sheikh sought to supplement the countries revenue base with multifaceted tourism and financial centre. This was accomplished by building a state of the art city complete with glass fronted skyscrapers, parks with dancing fountains, man-made islands rising out of the sea, and to top it off, the tallest building in the world.
Not surprisingly Dubai’s persona is as far from a traditional village as it is possible to find on this planet.
So how to savour Dubai in a 4-day stopover.
1) First, stay in the Burg Al Arab, a self-assessed 7* hotel built on a small man-made island that has the same pazzaz as Dubai itself. Fortunately for us the hotel had a special indulgence package; stay three days pay for two, that included breakfast, a panoramic sea view suite (there are only 18 suites of this type) that was a two-storey apartment larger than my house, a personal assistant who takes care of requests and various small indulgence including night canapes served in our suite.
When we required a car transfer I was asked: “Would that be a Rolls Royce or will a Mercedes do Sir?” “I think the Mercedes will be sufficient “ I replied.
The hotel’s breakfast buffet is excellent, its specialty restaurants have spectacular ambiences and corresponding prices with food that is very good but not in the memorable category.
Overall our stay at the Burg exceeded expectation. It was very expensive, but a once in a lifetime experience.
2) Take a helicopter flight over the city to appreciate the superlatives of this ultra-modern frontier city. Our flight on an AS350b helicopter (the smallest and cheapest available) started at the police academy compound, so I had some forebodings on what was and what was not allowed. For a typical flight, the route was predetermined for a 40min or 60min flight, with a set height between 1000-2000ft, and all windows closed. We could slow and circle around some areas as we modified the 40min route with 15 min extra time. An expensive indulgence?: Yes, but an amazing experience particularly as it was near sunset, and not to be missed.
3) a 4 wheel drive through the red desert, where the dunes can reach 300m. This tour is typically designed as an adventure experience with high-speed dune bashing that gets the car airborne or nearly tipping on its side. But it can be done more gently. This activity appears to be popular, and we saw a number of 6-7 car convoys careening around the dunes. Note there are two area of sand dune bashing, the more spectacular red sand dunes, and the flatter yellow sand dunes which are closer to Dubai city.
Most tours include camel rides and have a night desert feast, but reading disparaging google reviews of these activities, we chose to only drive through the red sand dunes near sunset, which turned out better than expected (the 3 hour tour with Dubai private tours included a 1 hour each way drive to and from the dunes).
4) A must-do activity with a falconer in a beautiful location set against a canvas of a red sun ball rising over endless sand dunes. The tour with Royal Shaheen started at 5 am, took an hour to get to the Dubai conservation area. Interaction with the birds began around 7 am after the sun had risen, and lasted for 1.5 hours.
It was a great experience, the falconer, guide, myself and Dahlia, five birds, all alone in the in the middle of the desert- or so it seemed. The falconer had 5 birds, a Harris hawk, a Peregrine falcon, a Saker falcon, a white barn owl, and a greater spotted eagle. We were able to handle and interact with three of these birds. An amazing experience.
The breakfast 8:30-9:30 at Al Maha Desert Resort was good but not in the same class as the Burj al Arab. We arrived back at the Burj around 10:45 am.
5) Many of the flights to and from Dubai are at night and do not synchronise with normal hotel check-in and checkout times. If the hotel is expensive like the Burj Al Arab, one can stay the remainder of the arrival night at the Holiday Inn or the Premier Inn, which are the two closest hotels to the airport and then later in the morning taxi to the prime hotel.
On the final day, one can take a city tour of Dubai ( including your luggage), departing the prime hotel and ending up at the airport at a suitable time to check in.